No room for Lisman

Phil Scott’s campaign launch may have been underwhelming from a rhetorical and policy perspective, but it was a damn fine show. Production values rarely seen in Vermont politics, a large crowd of Republicans desperate for a winner and giving their full-throated backing to Scott.

The crowd was impressive not only for its size, but for its heft. Numerous officeholders and party officials, most of the state committee, a whole lot of significant donors, and the VTGOP’s Mr. Everything, Jim Douglas.

If the event wasn’t specifically intended to discourage Bruce Lisman, it must have had that effect. He was boxed out like the Lions’ secondary on that Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary*. Looking at the crowd and all the big names, and feeling the enthusiasm, you have to wonder how Lisman can possibly make a race of this.

*We Michiganders have an acronym for that: SOL. “Same Old Lions.”

There’s only one chance: to throw open his checkbook and try to whomp up a movement with the sheer power of his money.

Which, it must be noted, didn’t work when he tried to cold-start an advocacy group; Campaign for Vermont is still struggling to survive without a direct line to Lisman’s fortune.

Plus, that tends not to work in Vermont. Rich Tarrant couldn’t do it. Neither could Jack McMullen. We don’t cotton to wealthy carpetbaggers, even if they have some claim to “real Vermonter” status.

Before the Scott event, I gave Lisman maybe a 15 percent chance of winning the Republican primary. Now? Less than five percent. And that’s only if Lisman spends big. Say, $500,000.

(One other note: Scott’s sharpened anti-Dem rhetoric will make it harder for Lisman to run to his right. And the broad Republican support at Scott’s campaign launch indicates that there simply aren’t enough true-believer conservatives to generate an “Anybody But Phil” undercurrent that could buoy Lisman’s campaign.)

Even if a torrent of Wall Street dollars can’t buy Lisman the nomination, he would force Scott to spend on the primary. The weakened nominee would then face a good Democratic candidate with a unified party with all the advantages of a Presidential election year. (The 2016 electorate should be at least 30 percent bigger than 2014’s, and could top 40 percent. Most of those voters will be liberal.)

Is Lisman willing to spend big? That remains to be seen. He might just decide to get out of the way.

Indeed, his best shot at becoming governor might involve a strategic exit and a hearty endorsement of Good Ol’ Phil. This would improve Lisman’s standing among Republicans and allow Scott to keep his powder dry for the general election. Then, if Scott loses in November, Lisman would be a strong contender for the 2018 nomination, when he wouldn’t have to face the liberal-leaning presidential-year electorate.

That’s a lot of ifs, but it’s probably his best shot. Sad, but true. And besides, I’m still waiting to see any evidence that Bruce Lisman is actually popular, or has the capability of leading a movement. So far, he’s mainly a legend in his own mind. And wallet.

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